In sports circles, Danica Patrick's name is becoming so common these days a few sportscasters reference her by first-name only. The celebrity-like driver made her stock-car debut a week ago, and with the positive results, she decided to climb the next rung on the latter -- NASCAR.
Patrick has entered the DRIVE4COPD 300, which will be her first exposure to NASCAR's Nationwide Series. For Saturday's race, the petite IndyCar Series star will be driving the Go Daddy Chevrolet entered by JR Motorsports this weekend
JRM is owned by superstar driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. and others.
Recognizing the importance of seat-time, Patrick took 38 laps in the first round of practice and a day later she got another 35 laps. On the speed charts, she was 26th the first time out and improved the second day to fifth fastest.
"They told me not to look at the speed chart yesterday, because it doesn't really matter," she said. "And I'm not going to look at it today, because it supposedly doesn't really matter."
When rain washed out qualifications, Patrick was awarded the 15th starting position based on owner points.
During practice, Patrick said the car had been improved upon, going from loose to slightly loose. "The big difference from last weekend to now is the ARCA car rolls through the corners and had a lot of grip," she said. "And the closing rates were not as dramatic as they are with the Nationwide car."
Because of the shorter wheel base, she said the Nationwide car is more on the edge. "Running up on other cars is something you have to keep under control," she said. "If you have to jump out of the throttle, there's a little bit of drama out there."
Patrick has prepped for the race by watching in-car and race footage from the 2009 event, but she did not partake in video games like (crew chief) Tony Eury Jr. and Dale Earnhardt Jr. do. "I'm not a video game person, but I'll give it a whirl," she said.
Her goal on Saturday is to be running at the end and to log 120 laps of practice. Noting the differences between the two cars, she said, "This is a whole other ball of wax, and the car is not easy to drive. There are a lot of really great drivers out there, really great teams, and everyone is running close. I'm glad to be out there."
She candidly admits the ARCA race was fun, which motivated her to give it another try. "My big reason for wanting to drive stock cars was because the racing looked like fun, and now I know it is. I love the passing and the side-by-side (racing)."
Patrick regards her television exposure as a plus, allowing fans to develop storylines and pick favorites.
To allay any assumptions she is ready to transition from IndyCars, she stated firmly, "I still very much enjoy IndyCar, and there's really nothing like the Indy 500." She said picking one series over another isn't possible. "It's like having two kids -- you can't pick (one over the other)."
Patrick's arrival in Daytona has created an outpouring of media attention and has generated nationwide publicity, which benefits NASCAR. Also, fans have rallied behind her, a move that may bring new fans into the sport.
Looking at the capacity crowd and the TV cameras in the media center, she said, "This is the biggest room of media I've ever seen. I've been lucky to be in these situations, and I think is what made me ready to go racing with NASCAR. This is a bigger stage."
When Patrick was asked if she thought her presence was overshadowing the Daytona 500, she responded, "By no means am I trying to take anything away from anybody else, including the Daytona 500. But if I can do anything to help the series and perhaps drag in some sponsors, I'm happy to do it."
Regardless of what Patrick does on Saturday, the Sunday newspapers, the Internet sites and television news programs will give her plenty of coverage, which is another win-win situation for racing.
For the Daytona 500, the atmosphere will be back to normal as Danica Patrick will be gone, allowing the stars of racing -- Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Earnhardt and the others -- to return to center stage.